Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Return

Something a little bit different for today's post. I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, Brunel's famous ship, permanently moored now in Bristol. It's always full of atmosphere - a little spooky in places - but one weekend earlier in December, it was even more so. And this is the story that resulted.

A Christmas Ghost Story

Snow fell from a strangely blue sky, and laughing children scooped it up from the dockside to make snowballs. An elderly man strolled past; he tipped his top hat and smiled. It was a charming smile, but I couldn’t help but notice that his teeth were stained brown, and that there was a nasty cut on his cheek. Two women were chatting, huddled inside drab looking shawls, their dresses muddy round the hem. Their faces were pale, and there were red circles under their eyes: they didn’t look too healthy. A wind whipped along the harbourside, and I zipped up my black jacket and looked up at the ship; the brightly coloured bunting fluttered against the sky, and the gold coat of arms carved on her stern gleamed in the sun.
            I’d been volunteering at the SS Great Britain for eight months now, and I never tired of seeing the beautiful ship. But today was special: it was just before Christmas, and the Victorian Festival had brought hundreds of extra visitors in. They mingled with the Ragged Victorians, a re-enactment group who specialised not in battles, but in recreating a sense of what life was like in the 19th century for the less well-off members of Victorian society – hence the dirt and the pallor. There were choirs, and Christmas card workshops, and Christmas pudding tasting sessions, and actors dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol came out in 1843, the same year the ship was launched – so why not?) And of course there was the snow machine, sending out flurries of damp but delicious snowflakes.
            My first shift was to be in the dry dock underneath the ship. It was here that the ship was built: now it was hermetically sealed from the outside so that the atmosphere could be controlled, to prevent the iron hull from rusting any more than it already had in its long years abandoned in Sparrow Cove in the Falklands. What a fate for the ship that had changed the world – the first iron ship, the first propeller-driven ship – Brunel’s glorious dream. But then, what a romantic rescue: the ship saved from its watery grave and brought back 8000 miles across the Atlantic to its birthplace in Bristol, and restored to the beauty of its youth.            
Before going down, I decided to have a stroll round the outside of the ship, just to take in the atmosphere and the buzz. As I approached the narrow walkway that goes in front of the bow, I noticed one of the Ragged Victorians standing gazing up at the ship. I was struck by his expression: he looked startled – even stupefied. Most of the re-enactors cultivated an air almost of boredom, as if this was just everyday life for them: nothing special at all. But not this man.
            He was tall and burly, with a square face framed by long sideburns and greying, slightly curly hair, which looked damp, as if he’d been caught in the rain. Perhaps he’d been standing directly in the trajectory of the snow machine? Yes, that must have been it – his clothes were dripping too. I felt a little concerned for him – he seemed to have taken his rôle play a little too far for his own good. I was about to suggest he should go somewhere and dry off, when he spoke. His voice had a slight burr that said he was from somewhere much further north than Bristol.
            “How well she looks! As beautiful as ever… but where is this? We are surely not in Liverpool?” He looked at the line of brightly painted houses on the other side of the river, winding up the hill towards Clifton, and frowned. “Wait – it’s Bristol, isn’t it? Where she was built and launched.”
            He was clearly taking his part very seriously indeed.
            Playing along with him, I said, “Yes, that’s right, we’re in Bristol.”
            He turned to look at me for the first time. He stared at my clothes – I was in black trousers, and the red shirt and black jacket worn by all the volunteers and many of the staff. He looked even more startled – bewildered even, and I began to wonder if he was quite well. He passed a hand over his forehead and murmured something that I didn’t catch.
            “I’m sorry?” I said.
            “Forgive me – really, I…” He seemed lost for words. He looked back at the ship, and then suddenly he reached out and laid his hand on the hull. Now, you’re really not supposed to do this: she may not look it, but the ship’s actually very fragile. I knew I should say something, but his face was so intent: it seemed like something too private, too important, to interrupt. It was almost as if he was listening to the ship, and she was listening to him. For a moment, the sky seemed to dim, and the wind blew stronger, and I heard the piercing, lonely cry of some unidentified seabird. I looked up, expecting to see it circling round the mast, but there was nothing there. I looked back at the man. He had taken his hand away, and he seemed calmer now.
            “I wonder,” he said, “if I might be permitted to step on board? It’s been a long time – so long. I should dearly love to walk her decks again.”
            “Yes, of course,” I found myself saying. “I’ll show you the way – we have to go through the Dockyard Museum…”
            But surely he must know that?
No matter – it was my job to welcome visitors, and so off we went towards the Dockyard Museum. I began to talk a little about the ship’s history, but I could see that he wasn’t listening. He paused by the audio-visual display at the entrance to the museum: there’s a screen in front of you showing the ocean, and a voice booms out instructing you to take the wheel and steer the ship. He gasped, stepped back and muttered something. No-one else seemed to notice his strange behaviour: in fact they didn’t seem to notice him. Feeling a little uneasy now, I noticed that people moved to each side of him, like waves parting round a rock, but they didn’t seem to notice him. I looked at him more closely. He had a kind face, I thought, but a sad one.
“Well,” I said brightly. “This way to the ship!”
I led him up the two flights of stairs and across the bridge which links the museum to the ship’s deck. If you’re brave enough, you can climb the rigging – under the supervision of experienced climbers, of course, and with safety harnesses and helmets. Two children were up there, and we could hear their excited calls, to each other and to their parents below. My companion looked up, and a broad smile lit up his face.
“Ah yes,” he murmured. “There’s no feeling like it, up there between the sea and the sky. But they must be careful…”
“Oh, they’ll be fine,” I assured him. “Really, there’s no danger. Though you wouldn’t catch me doing it,” I added.
He looked at me doubtfully. “Well, no, of course not. It’s no job for – er – a lady.” He frowned slightly as he glanced at my trousered legs, and for a moment I felt a little awkward, as though I was wearing something outlandish.
We walked along the deck towards the stairs that led below. He trailed his fingers along the railings, and gazed round as if inspecting the state of the ship. He seemed to be satisfied with what he saw, because he nodded and smiled slightly.
“You love the ship,” I said suddenly. “And you know her.”
“Aye, to be sure,” he said softly. “I know and love every inch of her.”
Who was he? Had he perhaps had something to do with the rescue mission that had brought her back from the Falklands? We quite often had visitors who remembered seeing her triumphal return – her last voyage, when she was towed up the river underneath Brunel’s other beautiful creation, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d been a rusty hulk then, but the banks of the river had been lined with Bristolians who wanted to welcome her home.
Now he was leading the way, not I. We went down the stairs to the promenade deck. As he pushed open the doors, he paused, and gazed the length of the room before him. He frowned when he saw the trunks piled up in the middle: “They should be made secure. A good storm, and they’ll be rolling all over the place.” He strode forward, jumping when he saw the figure of Brunel sitting on a bench, smiling genially as he gazed out at his creation.
“Good heavens!” he gasped.
“He’s not real,” I said hastily.
“No – no, of course not. I see that,” he said, recovering himself. “But a remarkable likeness, nonetheless.”
Then he turned, and gazed at the windows set into the bow of the ship. He stood very still then, and I noticed that all the noise of the visitors and the ship’s soundscape – which made the whole experience so authentic – had died away. I had the sudden sense that the ship was rolling gently – I’ve had this before, but usually lower down, in the hold, where it’s dark and frankly rather spooky. I could hear the sound of the sea, restless, hungry. It was quite dramatic – I remember thinking that they must have changed the soundscape, and how clever ‘they’ were. The sky must have clouded over, because it had grown much darker. I looked at his large, pale face, and saw an expression of infinite sadness there.
Who was he?
He turned to me. His eyes were like pools of seawater. I was suddenly afraid that if I gazed into them too deeply, I might drown. But I couldn’t look away.
“This was my ship for so many years,” he said. “She was my life. But I knew I couldn’t do it for much longer. I was ill. I didn’t tell anyone – I could never bear to be the object of pity. And I couldn’t bear the prospect of a slow decline on land – that could never be my way. And so, that night…” He turned to gaze at the windows again.
And then, of course, I knew. I had seen his portrait in the Dockyard Museum, many times heard the story of his mysterious disappearance one night in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with an unscrewed window the only clue. I had been saddened by the thought of his wife and daughters, who, all unawares, had come to meet him when the ship docked at Liverpool on Christmas Day some weeks later. This was none other than John Gray, the ship’s best-loved and longest-serving captain.
“But your wife,” I blurted out. “Your daughters. How could you…?”
He shook his head sadly, and I was silenced. Who, after all, can fully understand what goes on in the mind of a man so desperate that finally, he decides he can simply not go on?
Then he smiled. It was such a beautiful smile, and it was easy then to see how he had inspired such affection in his crew and passengers. He raised his arms as if to embrace the ship, and declared: “But how glad I am to see her once more! And she is cared for, and she looks so very well. My dear – you have been very kind. But now, if you permit, I will walk my ship alone. There is much to see…”
He bowed, and his ocean eyes twinkled, like ripples in the sun. Then he waked away, back toward the doors. The shadows seemed to gather round him, and soon I could no longer see him distinctly.
The sun had come out again. I felt suddenly rather weak, and I sat down beside Mr Brunel.
“Well,” I said. “Whoever would have thought it?”
And I swear he tipped his head slightly, and gave me a little smile.

Captain John Gray

Friday, 7 December 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

A friend recommended this book to me, and I'm so grateful to her! It concerns Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who in 1922 is sentenced to lifelong house arrest - basically for being an aristocrat. He is told he must spend the rest of his life in the Hotel Metropol, where he has hitherto occupied a large and elegant suite. If he leaves and is seen, he will be executed.

From the start it's clear that this charming man has great reserves of resourcefulness, patience and erudition. He assumes he will be returning to his own suite, but finds instead that he has been relegated to a tiny room which has been used only for storage. Quietly accepting, he takes a few essentials from his old rooms, and turns his back on the rest. However, we soon learn that the desk he takes with him has hollow legs, each of which contains a quantity of gold coins. And he manages to break through into the room next door via a cupboard, so that unknown to the casual observer, he now has a bedroom and a study, and there he is quite content.

The staff of the hotel have always liked and respected him, but now he gets to know them much better, and they become friends. But his true salvation is a child called Nina, who also lives in the hotel and knows every nook and cranny of it. She shares her knowledge with him, and although his physical world is now so confined, his mental and emotional world expand.

We are aware, as is the Count, of the tumultuous events outside the Metropol. But somehow, for forty years, the hotel manages to sustain its own life which is almost independent of what is going on outside. The Count meets visitors from other countries and encounters a beautiful actress whose fortunes wax and wane; he also meets a member of the new ruling class, a man called Osip, who tells him he wants to learn from him about the world beyond the borders of Russia - a world in which the Count travelled extensively before his incarceration. They learn about America through watching films, a great favourite being Casablanca (my own all-time favourite, too): and eventually, Osip is able to help him on two occasions when his need is great.

The book has the feel to me of the Russian epics to which the Count often refers. Everything is beautifully observed: the food and wine served in the hotel (the Count, who in later life becomes the Head Waiter and rejoices in this calling, is extremely knowledgeable about both), the way a present is wrapped, the characters themselves. It's enchanting. It moves at quite a slow pace, but speeds up as the years go on - and the ending is a tour de force: breathtakingly clever and quite unexpected.

It's a lovely, lovely book - I strongly recommend it.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Girl In The Broken Mirror, by Savita Kalhan

This is a riveting read, though not a comfortable one: indeed, how could it be in any way comfortable when at the heart of it is a brutal rape?

It tells the story of Jay, a fifteen year old girl born in England but from an Indian family. Up until she is eleven, she has a comfortable, happy life: her father,who has wholeheartedly embraced English life, has a successful business, and she goes to a private school. But then her father wraps his car round a tree, and they discover after his death that his business has failed and he has lost everything.

The story demonstrates very clearly how thin is the barrier between relative wealth and poverty. Jay and her mother move to a tiny flat above a grocer's. Jay moves from her private school to a comprehensive and works part time in the shop: her mother has two jobs and studies part-time to train as a teacher, which she hopes will be their way out of their situation. Jay has a plan too: she is studying hard, in the hope of getting a scholarship to a university, and then a good job. And she has two very good friends, Chloe and Matt - who is just becoming more than a friend.

But then the grocer decides to sell his shop, and Jay's mother tells her that they are to move in with Uncle Bal and Auntie Vimala. Uncle Bal is a kindly man, but he is dominated by his horrible wife, who is a more traditional Indian - and uses this as an excuse to demand that Jay and her mother act as pretty much unpaid servants in the house. Thay have two sons, gentle Ash, who is still at home, and Deven, a very unpleasant university student who is the apple of his mother's eye.

At the beginning of the book, Jay is just waking up in the aftermath of the rape. The writing is powerful and visceral, and Savita Kalhan, absolutely makes us understand why Jay feels she is filthy and spoiled, and that all she can think of doing - once she has scrubbed herself with bleach in a vain attempt to make herself feel clean - is to get as far away from the house as she can. The next section tells us what led up to the rape, and then we learn of its aftermath: of how Jay tries to come back from it, with the help of her friends. This process is not made to seem easy or inevitable: it's painful not only for Jay but for those around her, particularly her mother.

The book demonstrates how difficult it can be to be caught between two cultures. It also shows clearly how hard it is to get out of poverty - and it shows how, apart from these more dramatic difficulties, being a teenager isn't the easiest thing either. Savita Kalhan is not afraid to confront things that it would be easier to avoid, and because she writes so well and creates such very real characters, she puts the reader right in the middle of some very distressing experiences. Yet ultimately she offers hope, and shows that generosity and kindness are to be found more often than brutality and arrogance, and will, in the end, triumph.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Truth About Archie And Pye, by Jonathan Pinnock

As it says on the cover, this is a mathematical mystery. But don't be frightened. I'm utterly useless at maths, but I managed!

It's about a hapless (and useless) PR man who loses his job at the beginning of the book. On the train on his way back from the incident which causes the job loss, he happens to meet a writer called Burgess, who somehow leaves behind a suitcase. Tom picks it up, meaning to return it - but finds that the writer has been murdered. Thus begins a hilarious chain of unfortunate events, during the course of which Tom loses his partner, his home, and very nearly his life. It really shouldn't be funny, but it is - very. It's a bit like a book I vaguely remember from years ago, called Aberystwyth Mon Amour, by Malcolm Pryce: or in terms of the humour, rather like Father Ted. Tom is hopeless - you can guarantee that if there's a banana skin withing ten miles of him, he'll find it and trip over it. The account of a car chase in which he is driving his partners's 'lovely, little car', and thinks he is being pursued by the Byelorussian mafia (he isn't - then) is brilliant. There's also a well-muscled zumba teacher called Arkady (actually a qualified pathologist back in - you've guessed it - Belarus) who I was particularly fond of, and a game-designer called Ali who is wonderfully single-minded and stroppy. In fact they're such good characters, I'd really like to meet up with them again.

The book is published by Farrago, a new publisher whose mission is to seek out funny books. Well, they've certainly come up with the goods with this one. Perfect for dispersing the November glooms.

Friday, 31 August 2018

'Jelly', by Jo Cotterill

Today, a review. It's always difficult to assign an age range to a book, but I'd say this is somewhere in the region of 10+. It's a beautifully written story about an interesting and complex character, who happens also to be overweight. This doesn't govern her life, but it certainly affects the way she behaves: she finds a way to cope with it, but it doesn't quite do the trick...

This is a thoughtful novel - funny, but with very serious undercurrents - about Angelica, who is known as Jelly (not only because it's short for Angelica). Jelly is the narrator, and just as in class she plays the comedian to deflect attention from her weight, she acts a part for the reader too, often trying to convince us that she really doesn't care about being teased or not being able to wear the kind of clothes her slimmer friends wear - though her hurt does show through. Jo Cotterill handles this very adeptly, using poems which Jelly writes in secret to express her real feelings.

But the poems also play a crucial part in the plot, which of course I won't reveal. But trust me, it's cleverly done.

Jelly's mum is single, slim and pretty, but seems to have bad taste in boyfriends - until she meets Lennon, a musician. Lennon is a lovely character. He is genuinely interested in Jelly, and turns out to be good for both her and her mother - which is actually a delightful surprise: writers often take delight in throwing at their hero or heroine every misfortune they can think of, so when Lennon first appears, you take a deep breath and wait for him to turn out to be deeply unpleasant beneath the charming exterior. But it doesn't happen, and I found this really refreshing: Jo Cotterill is good at upending the reader's expectations.

Jelly is a brilliantly realised character. She's clever, she gets on with people, and she knows how to deflect attention so that she won't be bullied. There are times when it could happen, but she swerves to avoid it: for example, when she's playing football - which she's good at - she gets annoyed with another player and makes a mistake. Will, another player, teases her: "You're like the Hulk, Jelly. He lets his anger get the better of him too." The ball comes at her and she falls awkwardly. Will laughs raucously, and even her friend is smiling. She could get angry, but instead, she deflects: she clowns another fall and says, "Did you see that? I was like a hippo falling off a cliff!" The others laugh, so it's worked: but 'something twinges painfully inside me, but I keep going because they're laughing.'

Even the teachers, to start off with, are amused by her antics. But somehow things start to unravel, and she goes too far and it all goes wrong.

There was one thing that I felt a little puzzled by. Jelly wants to be judged for herself - of course she does, and quite rightly so. But clearly, being overweight makes life difficult for her, and I wondered sometimes why her mother seemed not to see this, buying her doughnuts for treats and so on. A point to discuss - but only one of many: this would be a brilliant book to read with early or pre-teens: a very good read, and one with lots of layers.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

Mr B’s, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a wonderful independent book shop in Bath. I’m about an hour away from Bath, and my nearest bookshop is a small Waterstones - so Mr B’s isn’t exactly my local.

But a couple of weeks ago, I spent a whole afternoon there. The reason? Last Christmas, one of my children gave me a truly magnificent present: it’s called a Reading Spa - in my view, just so much better than the other kind of spa!

What happens is this. You turn up at the shop - which is a characterful series of little rooms, linked by narrow staircases and with a surprise round every corner - and meet your designated ‘bibliophile’. You will already have given a few details about yourself and your reading habits over the phone when you made your appointment. You go upstairs, and sit in comfortable armchairs with tea or coffee and a delicious cake - and then you talk books, for an hour and a half! First you talk in more detail about the kind of thing you like, then your guide - for me, the delightful and very expert Amy - goes off to choose a selection of books for you to choose from - you have £55 to spend.

A corner of the children's department.
There’s so much that’s good about this. It’s a joy just to talk about books with someone else who loves books just as much as I do. And Amy produced a pile of books that I hadn’t come across. She introduced each one, explaining what it was about and why she thought I might like it - in some cases, she’d enlisted the help of colleagues. It was actually very difficult to choose. Eventually I ended up with a pile of ‘definites’ and another of ‘maybes’, and Amy promised to email me a list of the ‘maybes’. 

I left with my books, a bag, a mug, and a voucher towards my next purchase from Mr B’s. And I’ll certainly use it. I think the Reading Spa is an excellent idea, and Mr B truly is an Emporium of Reading Delights. 

And the books I chose? Here they are. 

I plan to write about them here as I read them. 

With many thanks, to Richard (my son), and Amy, from Mr B’s.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Eleanor Oliphaunt is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

This book has absolutely rightly done really well, so probably lots of you have read it already. And I can’t say mouth about it because it would spoil its unexpectedness. But I’ve just finished it so I want to acknowledge it and say how much I enjoyed it.

It’s about a young woman who at the beginning of the book has very little in her life, and is convinced that’s how she likes it. She lives alone, has a job she tolerates with people who puzzle her, and can only get through the weekends by drinking copious amounts of vodka alone in her flat. But gradually things begin to change, and we find out, bit by bit, why she is in this state.

It’s sad, shocking, but also very funny. I feel better for having read it.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Assassin's Fate, by Robin Hobb

First, let's just take a look at the cover. Isn't it perfectly luscious? It's by Jackie Morris, who recently collaborated with Robert MacFarlane on a beautiful book called Lost Words, which seeks to reclaim - particularly for children - words to do with nature which are apparently no longer widely familiar.

That book is wonderful, but let's get back to this one, which I finished last night. (There were tears, but more of that later.) The bee represents a child called Bee, who has been kidnapped and taken to an island called Clerres, whose white stronghold is also pictured. If you look closely, you'll see in the decoration of the letter 'A' two candles; Bee carries with her a candle, broken into two, which was made by her mother, now dead. She dreams about candles too, and about lots of other things. This dreaming is important, and it's part of the reason she's been kidnapped.

It's a very fat book, and it's the last in a very long series, which features Bee's father, Fitz, and his 'friend' (it's not the right word, but it's difficult to really explain their relationship without telling too much of the story), the Fool. It's fantasy, and I don't often read fantasy (although some of my favourite books in the past have been fantasy, notably The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Is Rising). I got into this one because several writer friends whose opinions I respect had enthused about it. When I downloaded the first one, I read a few pages and decided I couldn't be bothered to get into this world. Months later, for some reason, I decided to have another go - and I was hooked.

Robin Hobb is a brilliant writer. Not only does she create a complex fantasy world: she peoples it with richly realised characters who you really care about, she tells a story that hooks you in and won't let you go as few people can - and somehow, she keeps all the zillions of narrative threads in her fingers, over thousands upon thousands of pages, and weaves them together with the utmost skill. One example - the first few books concern Fritz and the Fool, and their lives in the Six Duchies. The next sequence deals with an entirely separate country, the Rainwilds, and its neighbours the Bingtown Traders, who possess the extraordinary liveships, which are sentient and have talking, moving figureheads. It's not at all obvious that these two sets of stories are connected, except by virtue of taking place in different parts of the same fantasy world - but in the next sequence, you discover that they are in fact intimately connected. It's just so clever - I have no idea how she manages to keep all those plates spinning.

The way she manages to bring it all together and explain most - not all - of the mysteries, in this last book, is an absolute tour-de-force. And it's so sad at the end - sad because of what happens, but also because you know you're saying goodbye to all of the characters. (Unless - unless - she changes her mind. There are stories still to be told...)

In the meantime, I may just have to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Soothing things

Have been rather busy lately, which is why I haven't been here much. But today I felt in need of a bit of soothing, so instead of looking at emails or the news, I started to look through my photos. And they very quickly began to do the job - with a little help from William Wordsworth and John Masefield.

Here's the first. I took it one day last week, when I went for a walk round the reservoir. It was a beautiful afternoon: bright, cold and very windy. The picture is actually deceptive because it makes the water look calm - in fact, it was turbulent, full of restless energy: so much so that it seemed alive, prowling and predatory. It made me think of that bit from Wordsworth's Prelude - though, as I discovered when I looked it up, he was actually talking about a mountain, not a lake:

..............................................the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measur'd motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

And a little further on:

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men mov'd slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

And here's the next: a picture of the Bristol harbourside.

I was heading towards the ss Great Britain, which has something fresh to see every time I go. But this, below, is an old favourite, not a new one: on the door of each cubicle in the loos is an extract from a poem to do with the sea. This is one. It seemed the perfect accompaniment to Bristol, as well as to Brunel's beautiful ship. And I like the last line, which says that by travelling, we may 'know the thoughts of men in other lands'. It's what we need, but often signally fail to do: to know the thoughts of others.

And finally a picture from the dear old hill, and one from the Avalon Marshes: and a final thought from Wordsworth's poem, Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.

...........with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Thank you, John and William.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Midwinter Magic

A few weeks ago, in December, I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I thought it was a wonderful book - I've written about it below. It's set in Alaska, and just as I finished it, I glanced out of the window - it was early morning, and still dark - and in the light of a street lamp, I saw that it had just begun to snow. It seemed quite magical.

Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition: photo by Frank Hurley

Since then, I seem to have been in thrall to books set in the frozen north - or, well, in frozen Britain. I read Susan Price's Ghost Drum series, set in the snowy north of Russia (again, scroll down); then, in company with lots of fans all over the world, I re-read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. This, if you've not read it, tells the story of Will Stanton, who, one mid-winter, finds out that he is not just an ordinary boy, but the last of the Old Ones, whose task it is to fight in a battle against the Dark. As the struggle begins, the snow falls, until it is so thick that normal life goes into abeyance.

It turns out that Robert MacFarlane is a great fan, and he suggested on Twitter that people should re-read it during the season in which it is set, and discuss it. Lots of artists took part too, and posted marvellous illustrations - it was great!

Then I went on to Stef Penney's Under A Pole Star. I'd had this on my Kindle for a while, but somehow it hadn't been the right time to read it. Now it was. Set in the late 19th century, it's about Flora, the daughter of a whaler, who yearns to get back to the Arctic where she went to as a child with her father. There she meets Jakob de Beyn, an American geologist and explorer, and the two, already both in love with the Arctic, fall deeply and irretrievably in love. Unfortunately, there is a third player in their story, Lester Armitage: a driven and dangerously ambitious explorer. Things don't end well. It's a vivid evocation of the frozen landscape and of the Inuit people who are Flora's friends, and it's cleverly told in several different stories and two different timescales.

Following that, I headed east to Iceland and read two detective books by Ragnar Jonasson, Black Out and Rupture. I read the first two in the series some time ago; they're about a young policeman called Ari Thor, and like most good detective series, they're as much about the lives of the characters as about the crimes that have been committed. And, naturally enough, there's a lot of snow.

And now I'm nearing the end of another book by Eowyn Ivey, called To the Bright Edge of the World, also set in Alaska. But more of that next time.

What is the fascination of the poles? (I just heard on the radio of a musician who is about to set off to the Arctic to be a song-writer in residence, so it's not just me!) I remember when I was a child reading in a big, dark red encyclopaedia, called The Children's Wonder Book or something similar, about the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, and thinking how much I'd like to see them. (I still would.) And I'm fascinated by the eerie beauty of the photographs of Ernest Shackleton's Antarcticexpedition; I have a book about them.

Of course, I could go. These days it's quite easy - not as it was for Flora, Jakob and Shackleton. Perhaps one day I will. But in the meantime, how delightful it is to read about extremes of cold while curled up in front of a warm fire - to hear the call of the icy wastes, but to leave it for others to answer.

PS Some feedback, please: do you prefer the font smallish, like this, or larger, like the post below? Thanks.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ghost Drum, by Susan Price

I've just finished reading Ghost Drum, which was originally published by Faber in 1987 and won the Carnegie Medal. So it's thirty years old - but it doesn't feel it. It feels intensely fresh and vivid.

Like The Snow Child, it has its roots in Russian folklore. And like Northern Lights and La Belle Sauvage, it features a shaman - well, several - and the ghost drum itself has a good deal in common with Pullman's alethiometer. I had been thinking how interesting it is that serendipity often leads you to books that link up with the one you've just read - but I guess it's actually the other way round: Ghost Drum had been on my Kindle for a little while, and I was prompted to read it because I vaguely realised that it had links with The Snow Child and with La Belle Sauvage.

But it's a very different book from either of those. It's like a piece of embroidery, worked with rich jewel colours on a piece of dark velvet, intense and vivid. It's remarkable.

I was going to write a proper review, but I came across this one by Julia Jones, and it says everything I would have said and more, so I'm just going to point you towards it here.

But one last thing. This book won the Carnegie, and it's wonderful - but it's out of print with traditional publishers. (Though Susan Price has published it independently herself, together with its two sequels.) Why is it out of print? I can just see the three books bound together and illustrated, perhaps with woodcuts - it would make a beautiful book!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

First, an apology - I read this while I was away, a few weeks ago; the copy was borrowed, so I don't have it by me to refer to. But I did make some notes.

I really loved Northern Lights. I felt spellbound by this world, so similar to ours, but so different in such enchanting ways. Lyra was a delightful character; warm, brave, loyal, stubborn - it never seemed surprising that she commanded such loyalty among the other characters. And what characters they were: Iorek the bear, Serafina Pekkala the lovely witch, the intrepid balloonist... and in each case, you get two for the price of one, because of the brilliant concept of the daemon - the familiar creature which each person has. Imagine that - always having someone with you to have your back, someone who knows you as no-one else can, who can advise you and encourage you!

I still liked The Subtle Knife, but not so much. And I had considerable reservations about The Amber Spyglass. I was not engaged by the creatures on wheels, and felt the whole thing had become unwieldy. But there was still much to enjoy, and I was very sad to leave the world of Lyra's Oxford - especially as she and Will had been so unsatisfactorily separated.

And so to the much anticipated first volume of Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. At the beginning, it felt wonderful to be drawn back into that world. Pullman is, of course, a master storyteller, confident and immensely skilled, and it immediately feels as if we are in safe hands. The hero is a boy called Malcolm, who lives at his parents' pub close to the river, just outside Oxford. He helps out at a nearby nunnery, and always has his ears open ready for a good bit of gossip. So of course, he's intrigued when a baby mysteriously arrives and is put into the care of the nuns. The child inspires affection in everyone who comes across her - including Malcolm, who soon becomes devoted to her. And he soon discovers that she will need every bit of his resourcefulness and courage to keep her safe from those who are hunting for her. The baby, of course, is Lyra.

All goes well for the first part of the book. The characters seem rather to echo those of the earlier trilogy - Malcolm has the warmth and courage of Lyra herself, and Will's ability to be ruthless when necessary. (Will is also very capable with his hands, and the descriptions of his work mending shutters etc are lovingly detailed.) And there's a courageous woman professor, also as in the earlier books - and a romance which develops, between Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at his parents' inn. At first the two children don't get on at all, but that changes, and she helps him with Lyra when, as the waters rise all around them, they rescue Lyra from her enemies and flee in a sturdily-built little boat - The Belle Sauvage.

It was at this point that I became a little restive. The waters rise - and rise - and rise. The boat goes on - and on - and on.Though Malcolm is only 11, he turns out to be immensely practical and resourceful, and capable of taking on grown men in defence of his charge. Even so, he has to be baled out (sorry!) by some creatures from what feels like a quite different world - a giant, a fairy enchantress - as well as by a rather more humdrum pharmacy, which pops up at just the right time to provide nappies and other baby supplies for Lyra. I've read other reviews which say that the pace really picked up with the flood; but for me, it went on for far too long, and the world which seemed so solid and certain to start off with began to seem far less substantial. (And not just because it was largely underwater.) And then... it stops: and I gather that the next book will take up the story some twenty years into the future. So... what about the characters we've come to care about? What about the nuns - what happened to them? What about Malcolm and Alice?

There's still a great deal to admire and to enjoy in La Belle Sauvage - how could there not be, with a writer of Pullman's calibre? But with Northern Lights, he set the bar very high. With this book, beautifully written and full of splendid things as it is, I don't think he quite reaches it.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

A few weeks ago, I was in Brussels, staying with my son and his family. I woke up early, when it was still dark, and settled down to finish the book I'd been reading. It was The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey; it's about a couple living in Alaska who have lost one child and never been able to have another. Then, out of the snowy landscape, a girl appears. Is she real, or have they created her out of their need?As I finished it, I glanced out of the window. In the light of a street lamp, I saw that the soft drizzle was turning first to sleet, then to snow. I didn't expect it to settle, but it did. It was a magical moment - it was as if the book itself had conjured up the snow, just as the couple had conjured up the child.

That snowfall was the finishing touch, but even without it, this is a beautiful, brilliant book. It's based on the old Russian folk tale of Snegurochka, which is about an old couple who make the child they have never had out of snow. In this story, the couple are called Jack and Mabel. In middle age, they have moved north to Alaska as pioneers, to carve a farm and a new life out of the wilderness. The landscape is vividly evoked, with its abundance of wildlife (including bears, pine martens, silver foxes, lynx and salmon), its remote mountains, its swift-running rivers - its beauty.

Mabel has never recovered from the death of her baby some years before - one reason for the move to Alaska is to escape the heartbreak of seeing other people's children. They keep themselves to themselves, but eventually realise they need other people in order to survive, and they make friends with their neighbours, George and Esther. Esther, practical, warm and unconventional, is the perfect friend for quiet, sad, self-contained Mabel, whose icy heart begins to thaw. She and Jack begin to live again, and to rediscover each other.

And then an extraordinary thing happens. After a snowfall, Jack makes a child out of snow. And immediately after that, they glimpse a real child, who has apparently emerged from the snow. Is she real?

Well, she turns out to be. But there's more than a sprinkling of magic about this child.

I won't say any more. I know I'm late to the party with this book and many of you will already have read it, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't. But - I read a lot. I read many books I would be happy - no, delighted - to have written myself. But it's not often I read one and think - there. That's how to do it. That's what it's all about. Mal Peet's Keeper was one, and this is another.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

So, as 2017 recedes into the mist...

Looking towards Glastonbury from the Mendip Hills
 ... may your path through 2018 be as clear and bright as this one, between land and sea!

The coastal path on the Ile de Re, near La Rochelle in France